The Ovarian Lottery: A Thought Experiment


The Ovarian Lottery is a thought experiment popularized by Warren Buffet, one of the greatest investors of all time. The thought experiment stresses the importance of luck in life and focuses on when and where we are born in this world. If you play the lottery, you do not know whether you’re going to be born in India, Afghanistan, Somalia, the UK, the USA or somewhere else. The experiment was inspired by the concepts from a book called ‘A Theory of Justice’ by philosopher John Rawls.
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Building something at the intersection of technology and art. I write about random things on my blog: rishikeshs.com

A thought experiment is an imagined sequence of events for evaluating the consequences and outcomes of a hypothesis, theory or principle. Ovarian Lottery is a thought experiment popularized by Warren Buffet, one of the greatest investors of all time. The experiment was inspired by the concepts from a book called ‘A Theory of Justice‘ by philosopher John Rawls, which argues that a truly just society can only be created when everyone agrees to it before knowing where they’ll land in the society. The thought experiment stresses the importance of luck in life and focuses on when and where we are born in this world.

The Thought Experiment

Warren Buffet explains the concept with a thought experiment when a Genie appears 24 hours before you were born. The genie gives you the wish that you determine the economic and social system into which you are going to emerge. There is a catch though, as you do not have any control over where you would be born. If you play the lottery, you do not know whether you’re going to be:

  • Born in India, Afghanistan, Somalia, UK, the USA or somewhere else.
  • Born male, female or others.
  • White, black, brown or any other ethnicity.
  • Tall, short, average or a dwarf
  • Intelligent, Average, or retarded
  • Born to rich, poor or middle-class parents
  • Aborted or die during the birth
  • In school or forced to work in a cobalt mine for the corporations
  • Even if you’re playing the lottery, what sort of economic and social systems would you create?

    Would you even take the lottery?

According to Buffet, ideally, you want to create a system that is going to produce an abundant amount of goods which would increase at a rapid rate so that the future generations would have a better life. The system should incentivize the people who won the lottery but at the same time should ensure that the others who didn’t win the lottery have a decent life.Warren Buffet says, “When I was a kid, I got all kinds of good things. I had the advantage of a home where people talked about interesting things, and I had intelligent parents and I went to decent schools. I don’t think I could have been raised with a better pair of parents. That was enormously important. I didn’t get money from my parents, and I really didn’t want it. But I was born at the right time and place. I won the ‘Ovarian Lottery”.

Buffet was a special individual who was born into the right family at the right time. His dad, Howard Buffett, owned a small brokerage and this gave him a headstart to learning more about investing. Buffet points out the case of his 2 sisters who were equally smart and ambitious. However, in those times, there were very limited opportunities for women and they couldn’t achieve much. Thus, as a Caucasian male, it was easier for him to become a billionaire at that time, contrary to Oprah Winfrey who had a tough road before becoming the first black billionaire.

The Gratitude Angle

“The womb from which you emerge determines your fate to an enormous degree for most of the seven billion people in the world,”

At the time of writing this article, the world population stands at somewhere around 7.9 billion. If you’re reading this article, irrespective of your geography or financial status, you’re in the top 60% of the population that has access to the internet.

I feel like I’ve won the lottery. I was born in a developing economy as a male, I always had a roof over my head, I never faced any problem with access to food or water, I had opportunities for education and I’m lucky that I was not born in a time when there was a conflict or war.

If I’m guessing right, most people with a computer, freedom to access the internet, ability to speak some English and smart enough to reach this website would never take the Ovarian Lottery. We always complain about the shortcomings in our life but think about someone born now in Afghanistan or a refugee camp in Somalia? Someone like that would be up for a gamble and would definitely take the lottery!

I also wonder about the randomness and the lack of control we have over our lives. Where we start in life has a tremendous effect on where we end up in life. This thought experiment gave me a sense of gratitude and I’ve never felt happy about my life like this in a while!

I would love to hear your thoughts on the experiment. Would you take the lottery? If yes, what changes in the system would you make to ensure that everybody is served well? You can leave your comments or contact me.

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